After having bought Captain America for five months straight (or almost straight, as I somehow managed to miss issue #111), in early 1969 I took a couple of months off from reading the Star-Spangled Avenger’s adventures. Five decades later, I can’t quite remember why I did so. Obviously, beginning with #114 there was a considerable stylistic shift in the look of the book, which had just seen the end of Jim Steranko’s brief but epochal run as the series’ artist — but it seems unlikely that I would have turned up my nose at the work of either John Romita (who drew both the cover and interiors of #114) or John Buscema (who contributed the interior art for #115, behind a Marie Severin cover), considering how much I enjoyed their work on other titles. Admittedly, the Romita cover is a little dull, at least in comparison to the Steranko (and Jack Kirby) jobs that immediately preceded it, but it’s hard for me to believe I would have passed on Severin’s dramatic rendition of a shrunk-down Cap being held prisoner within a transparent cube by the Red Skull, while Sharon Carter looks on helplessly. Perhaps I never actually saw that issue on the stands (or the one preceding it, for that matter).
But I obviously did see Captain America #116, seeing as how I bought it; and I figure that my eleven-year-old self must have found picking it up a no-brainer, considering that (as the cover proudly proclaimed) the story guest-starred the mighty Avengers. As a young comics reader, I always loved team-ups and guest appearances, relishing the notion of getting multiple superheroes for the price of one. I’m sure that I realized that I was probably coming in in the middle of a continued storyline — that’s just how things rolled at Marvel, after all — but by this time I was pretty comfortable with the idea that either the storytellers would give me enough information to dope out what was going on, or the action would come so fast and furious that I wouldn’t have time to worry about it.
This issue marked the beginning of Gene Colan’s tenure as Captain America‘s regular penciller — a run that would ultimately extend to twenty-two issues, uninterrupted. By his own later account, Colan was delighted to have landed the gig. “As an aspiring artist in the early 1940s, I had read Jack Kirby’s Captain America,” Colan wrote in his introduction to Marvel Masterworks – Captain America, Vol. 4 (2008). “Jack was an inspiration to me… Now, almost thirty years later, came my chance to live up to that standard…” Colan was joined on the series by inker Joe Sinnott, who’d embellished the first two of Jim Steranko’s three CA issues, and whose ongoing collaboration with Kirby on Fantastic Four was as responsible as anything else for setting what amounted to Marvel’s dominant “house style” of the late Sixties. Sinnott would provide a clean, crisp finish to Colan’s pencils, which could on occasion be impressionistic to the point of obscurity; or, as Colan himself put it: “He made it clearer!”
Like my younger self, Colan and Sinnott were both joining the series in the middle of an ongoing storyline. Editor and writer Stan Lee had begun the current Red Skull – Cosmic Cube arc in the last two pages of the John Romita-drawn issue #114, then continued to develop it in issue #115, in collaboration with John Buscema. Throughout the latter issue, the Skull had taunted and tormented our hero via the nigh-omnipotence granted him by the Cube; until, in the final pages, he at last delivered the ultimate coup de grace — by swapping bodies with his hated arch-enemy.
Today, of course, the hero-villain body swap is a hoary old trope; in May, 1969, however, my younger self had as yet had relatively little exposure to the idea. My first brush with it had probably come in Justice League of America #61 (March, 1968) — although in that story, the heroes’ appearances were changed to those of their villainous foes without an actual mind-swap taking place. The next place I encountered the concept may have been the very Captain America comic we’re presently discussing — or it could have been Daredevil #37 and #38, a two-part tale involving DD’s body-swap with Doctor Doom. (I actually started buying Daredevil exactly one issue too late to pick up either part of this story off the stands, but I did see #38’s cover — coincidentally drawn by Gene Colan — in Marvel’s house ads, as well as read about the story in later Daredevil issues’ letters columns — and I was so eager to read the story itself that those two comics were among the very first back issues I purchased through the mail, most likely some time in 1969.) In any case, I found the concept uniquely compelling, and perhaps even a little frightening; for a hero to suffer not only the loss of their personal identity, but also to be misidentified as their opposite number — someone who represents everything they themselves are against — seemed to me to be about the worst fate imaginable.
“He’s imprisoned me in the one trap from which there’s no escape! The trap of… his own hideous form!” I didn’t know a whole lot about the Red Skull in 1969,* and thus I had no reason not to take Cap’s words at face value. Therefore, I assumed that what appeared to be the Skull’s head was, in fact, his head, and not a mask. Long-time Marvel readers would have known better, of course, and Cap should have as well — though I suppose we can cut him some slack for not being able to think super-clearly in his current dire circumstances (though that’s obviously not an excuse we can extend to the book’s writer, Stan Lee).
In the caption of panel 4, above, writer/editor Lee confidently asserts that his readers have now been given enough what-has-gone-before information to follow the story from here on out — and he’s not wrong, actually. About the only significant thing I’d missed in the past two issues that wasn’t addressed on #116’s first two pages was a scene in #114 in which Cap — who’d effectively “killed off” his secret identity of Steve Rogers in the previous issue — had to resort to renting a room in a skeevy flophouse, due to the fact that he no longer possessed any valid civilian I.D., money, job, etc.. On reflection, however, that scene is just so pathetic that I’m just as glad Lee and Colan didn’t feel obliged to reference it here. (Heck, Cap himself may have been secretly relieved when the Skull turned up, just a few panels after this one.)
Oh, and there was also the bit in #114 where Cap rather unfairly and presumptuously asked his girlfriend, Sharon Carter, to give up her career as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Fortunately, the story takes the trouble to fill in any latecomers (such as yours truly) regarding that matter on the very next page:
Of course, at this point I would probably have welcomed a little background info on the all-powerful Cosmic Cube — where it came from, how the Skull acquired it,** etc. — but Lee was correct in believing that all I really had to know was that the Cube gave the Skull the power to rewrite reality itself. (Though, it has to be said, he seemed content to wield its power in fairly petty and unimaginative ways, at least so far.)
Fearing that the police might hold their fire for just long enough to allow Cap to escape, the Skull wills the Cube to cause an explosion at the testing lab; fortunately for the facility staff, however, they’ve already spied the supposed “Red Skull”, and lowered themselves safely below ground level as a precaution.
The Skull’s brief interaction here with an African-American mother and child is perhaps most notable for what it doesn’t include — i.e., no overt statements of racism on the Nazi villain’s part. While Lee and his fellow late-60s Marvel storytellers weren’t at all adverse to confronting the evils of bigotry, during this era they seem to have generally shied away from this particular aspect of Nazism, preferring to present Adolf Hitler and his ilk as “equal opportunity” evil aggressors. (This would change in the years to come, of course.)
Arriving at a nearby police precinct just as New York’s finest are receiving word of the “Red Skull”‘s act of sabotage, the faux “Sentinel of Liberty” offers them a helpful tip:
In the very next panel, Cap is forced to swerve to avoid a police barricade — and we’re off into a bravura sequence that Gene Colan would later remember as follows, in a 2000 interview with Roy Thomas for the sixth issue of the latter’s Alter Ego magazine:
I think it was in a Captain America story – where a guy… has to make a getaway in a car – and actually, the whole thing was really on one page, so I made about six or seven pages out of it. [laughs] Those were the days when I could take Stan’s plots, and extend them, or increase them or decrease them, or whatever I wanted to do with them. Boy, he got me on the carpet for that! He said, “What do you mean, taking a whole eight pages out of the book and just showing a car chase scene?” I was very influenced by Bullitt.
Bullitt — just in case you’re not familiar with it — is an American action movie, directed by Peter Yates and starring Steve McQueen, that was originally released in October, 1968, and became both a critical and box-office success. While it may not have still been playing in his local theater at the time Colan drew Captain America #116, it’s very easy to imagine it could still have been very much on its mind.
What drew the most attention to the film at the time of its release — and what it continues to be best known for — is its extended car chase scene, which was shot on the streets of San Francisco over a two-week period, and lasts almost eleven minutes on screen. Nothing like it had ever been seen before, and one can hardly fault Colan for being inspired to try to replicate its cinematic excitement on the comic-book page.
Cap regains the road, but even as he speeds on down the highway, police cars are in hot pursuit. Of course, the cops can’t help but be impressed by their quarry’s skilled driving — even if he is an abhorrent fascist super-villain:
And with that, the car chase sequence comes to an end. It’s taken five pages, total — rather than the “six or seven” or even “eight” that Colan would later recall.
Did my eleven-year-old self consider the scene too long? I don’t remember that I did, though I’m pretty sure that I was barely cognizant of Bullitt‘s existence, and wouldn’t have recognized the comic’s homage for what it was. On the other hand, after twelve pages I was probably a little impatient for the guest stars promised on the cover to show up, already — and was relieved when they finally did, on the very next page:
As regular readers of this blog will remember, Rick Jones had come on board as Cap’s new partner in Jim Steranko’s first issue, #110 — thereby finally resolving a subplot that Lee, with Jack Kirby, had originally introduced way back in Avengers #4 (March, 1964).
What befalls Rick in the scene above probably disturbed me more in May, 1969, than virtually anything else in the issue. I was certain that this awful thing would be one of the first matters to be set right when Cap eventually resumed his true identity; and so, when, a few months later, it wasn’t — at least, not in the way that I expected, and wanted — it probably had a negative impact on my future enthusiasm for buying more than one Marvel series. (But that’s a post for another day.)
Cap has come to the Avengers hoping that Hank Pym, Tony Stark, or someone else can find an antidote to what’s befallen him — though he realizes that the odds against the team believing his story are huge:
Despite the Skull’s body not being in as peak condition as his own “super-soldier: form, Cap’s skills allow him to take down Yellowjacket, even as he agonizes out loud about how he’d probably act the same way his fellow Avengers are, if their positions were reversed:
By the way, all of the Avengers on the team’s current active roster appear in this story, with the exception of the Black Panther. Colan had just come off a three-issue run on the team’s own title, and was surely at least as aware of their present line-up as Lee would have been; so T’Challa’s absence here is a little odd. (Especially since he does appear on the cover.) Perhaps the artist simply forgot about the Panther by the time he reached this part of the story — or, just maybe, having already burned off five pages with his car chase indulgence, he realized he’d have a hard time shoehorning every Avenger into the action in the space he had remaining, and chose to leave one out — hoping that neither Lee nor the readers would notice.
The Red Skull’s most dastardly ploy yet — foiled by the POWER OF LUV!!! Yes, it’s as cheesy as hell — but taking into consideration the unrelieved bleakness of the story up to this point (car-chase and fight-scene thrills notwithstanding) my sixty-one-year-old self really can’t begrudge the storytellers this one little ray of hope, any more than my eleven-year-old self could in 1969.
Does that last page feel just a little bit rushed to you? Yeah, it does to me too. To this day, Gene Colan takes a lot of heat for running out of room before the end of a story — perhaps because he was actually willing to own up to occasionally running into pacing difficulties, in such comments as the “car chase” interview passage quoted earlier. Indeed, he even went so far as to admit that he (quoting again from that Alter Ego interview) “never read the plots all the way through first” before he began drawing a story. But, truthfully, this was a chronic problem during the Sixties at Marvel, as the company’s artists all attempted to meet the challenge of working under the “Marvel Method” (meaning that they were required to pace a story as they drew it, working from a more or less detailed plot outline) — each in their own way –and it’s evident in the output of most, if not all, of the major pencillers of Marvel’s Silver Age; not just Gene Colan.
But rushed conclusion or not, this is the end of the issue — and it’s an ending that leaves us with lots of questions. What will become of our hero at the hands of the mysterious, but evidently murderous, Exiles? Will Sharon Carter realize that the man she thinks is her beloved Steve Rogers isn’t, before any inappropriate (and icky) kissy-face can occur? And will Captain America ever manage to dope out that, hey, this weird skull-head thing is actually a mask that he can, y’now, take off? For the answers to these and many other questions, be sure and check back… well, not next month, because I failed to buy Captain America #117 when it came out in June, 1969 — but definitely the month after that, when I’ll be posting about the not-quite-but-almost-debut of Sam Wilson, the Falcon, in CA #118. I hope you’ll join me then.
*In fact, I knew even less about the Red Skull than I thought I did, back in May, 1969. At that time, I would have confidently told you that the Skull was responsible for causing the deaths of Peter Parker’s (i.e., Spider-Man’s) parents. After all, that’s what I’d learned from reading Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5 the previous summer:
What I didn’t know at the time — or, more accurately, what nobody knew at the time, including, apparently, the story’s creative team of Stan Lee, John Romita, and Larry Lieber — was that this was a different Red Skull from the one who’d fought Captain America in World War II, and who’d returned to bedevil Cap in the present as of Tales of Suspense #79 (July, 1966). This fact wouldn’t actually be revealed until years later, via a bit of latter-day retconning ultimately necessitated by a continuity gaffe in the Spidey annual. That comic had depicted the Skull operating during the post-World War II era — thereby contradicting ToS #79 (also written by Lee), which had shown him going into suspended animation before the end of the war. Whoops!
**Actually, the Red Skull himself didn’t know exactly how he’d once again come into possession of the Cosmic Cube — or, at least, he didn’t know the complete story.
The Cosmic Cube — a creation of the criminal science organization A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics) — had made its debut in the same multi-issue 1966 Tales of Suspense storyline that saw the Red Skull himself revived in the present day. The story had concluded in ToS #81 with the Skull’s loss of the Cube, which fell into the sea and sank to the bottom, presumably to be lost forever.
Or, as the Skull himself narrated to his Cap-tive audience (sorry) in Captain America #115:
That “one thing more” was, of course, the Cosmic Cube — which was found by an ordinary “peasant,” and used by him to benefit the folk of his village; at least, until he came to the attention of the Skull’s underlings. (You can imagine what happened after that.)
That’s the whole story, as far as CA #115 is concerned; but, when I recently re-read this comic for the first time in many, many years in preparation for this post, I was newly struck by the great unlikelihood of the Cube, having been lost at sea, suddenly being ejected from a live volcano. What in the world could Stan Lee and John Buscema have been thinking when they came up with that idea?
I was curious enough to do a bit of online research, which fairly quickly (thanks, Wikipedia!) led to my discovery that the Cosmic Cube had in fact made an appearance between Tales of Suspense #81 and Captain America #115. In Avengers #40 (May, 1967), Cap had tasked his fellow Assemblers with locating the Cube and retrieving it from the ocean depths. Unfortunately for the Avengers, however, the Sub-Mariner got to it before they did. A battle naturally followed; and ultimately, due primarily to the Prince of Atlantis’ unfamiliarity with the Cube’s operation, the Avengers managed (at least momentarily) to get the upper hand, causing the Cube to fall into an “almost bottomless” rift in the earth.
This one-and-done story (which was written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Don Heck) ended with an ironic twist, as the Cube was briefly retrieved from its resting place deep underground by the first Marvel Comics super-villain of the Silver Age — the Mole Man — and then carelessly abandoned, leaving it to lie where it fell until it was presumably caught up in the volcanic eruption depicted in Captain America #115.
So, although the Red Skull may have never found out how, or by whom, the Cosmic Cube got fished out of the drink — and readers of CA #115 who hadn’t been keeping up with Avengers for the past few years may not have, either — dyed-in-the-wool Marvelites who had read Avengers #40 (and had decent memories) did know — and could be smug in their special, “secret” knowledge, if they so pleased.
Did Stan Lee and company think about adding a footnote referencing Avengers #40 to the appropriate panel of CA #115, and decide not to? Or did they just not even consider it? Whatever the answer, the result — an instance of continuity having been carefully handled behind the scenes, but without the story itself calling any attention to it — is just the kind of thing to remind me how and why I fell in love with the Marvel Universe, over a half-century ago.
So I’m not the only one who thought the Red Skull did some really petty, pointless stuff with the Cosmic Cube. I’ve always rationalized this with the fact that the Skull is, at the end of the day, a rather unimaginative, sad, pathetic individual. He’s a classic bully. All he really cares about is lording it over other people. So when he actually gets his hands on a device capable of rewriting reality itself, all the Skull can think to do with it is swap bodies with Cap, or screw up Sam Wilson’s history, or whip himself up a suit of gold armor, or turning the world into a recreation of the Third Reich.
I don’t think we really saw anyone truly begin to grasp the full potential of the Cosmic Cube until Thanos got his hands on it, and made himself into a literal god. But even then he was defeated because he was still relying on the Cube as a power source, and because of his own personal hang-ups.
Many years later, during Ed Brubaker’s run, I think the Falcon made some sort of observation that the Cosmic Cube was a bit like the Monkey’s Paw, in that whenever someone made a wish with it, things never would work out the way they expected, that something or other would always go wrong to trip up the person using it. I thought it was a good observation.
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Good observations, Ben — I’d forgotten all about the Falcon’s “monkey’s paw’ remark.
Of course, I do think we need to give the Skull (or, more accurately, several post-Lee Marvel writers) credit for being a bit more imaginative in using the Cube in later decades — which may be for better or for worse, depending on your point of view. Secret Empire, anyone?